Public words aside, the Muslim and Israeli positions on peace are fixed and seemingly intractable. 

The Peace that Passeth Understanding

The white doves of peace were confused.

Pope John Paul II had just disembarked from his AlItalia jet on the runway of Amman, Jordan's Queen Alia Airport. The pontiff made his slow, painstaking way down the steps from the plane's door to the tarmac, followed by a pack of his cardinals. Journalists and dignitaries, including King Abdullah II of Jordan, clustered around him in a tight knot.

Three small children, two Muslims and a Christian, stood within the knot at the foot of the steps. One bore a bouquet of black irises, a Jordanian flower, for the pope. Another held a cage containing three white doves. Shortly after the pope alighted, two of the doves appeared above the heads of the crowd.

The first dove flapped haphazardly in a circle, just over the heads of the knot, then wheeled around and made a low, lazy flight toward the king's camouflaged helicopter, parked on the tarmac about 100 yards behind the pope's receiving line. The second flapped awkwardly up to a perch on top of the pope's jet, and stayed there. About three minutes later, as the pope, supported at the elbow by King Abdullah, had traveled about a third of the way down a red carpet lined with Jordanian royalty, politicians and Christian and Muslim religious figures, the third dove made an appearance. It rode a bit, just cleared the jet, and flew lazily into the distance.

The weak, errant flight of those three doves was hardly an inspiring symbol of peace. They certainly did little justice to the arrival of Pope John Paul II in the Holy Land, a pilgrimage of historic significance for the Middle East matched only by the Oslo peace accords of 1993 between the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. But as gestures go, it was surprisingly appropriate.

Those doves were confused, clueless, and in disarray. And in spite of the pope's visit, that's exactly how the prospects for peace in the Middle East look. Those doves were in the know.

I spent the two weeks leading up to the pope's March 20 arrival in Amman, Jordan — last week crisscrossing Israel and Jordan, talking to a wide range of Israelis and Jordanians of all religions. I spoke with the mayors of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. I met with the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel and Jerusalem's Muslim religious leader, the grand mufti.

Amazingly, every leader said virtually the same thing: that the pope's trip to the Holy Land was purely a spiritual one, and it should not be given any political significance. Then, after making that disclaimer, the leaders invariably tried to spin the pontiff's pilgrimage in favor of their political cause. And everyone involved stated their positions in intractable fashion. There was no willingness to negotiate, to waver in the slightest. And that's why the prospects for peace, a papal visit notwithstanding, are dim at best.

The most divisive issue is the fate of the city of Jerusalem, holy to all three monotheistic faiths and a point of pride for Israelis since they wrested it from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel's chief rabbi, Ysrael Meir Lau, stated the position of most Israelis in a press conference March 16 to discuss the pope's impending visit. "We are alive," the rabbi said of the Jews. "We are here, we are back home in our eternal holy city of Jerusalem."

Rabbi Lau went on to say that the pope's visit would constitute a tacit recognition that Jerusalem belonged to the Jews, and the Jews only. "We, the Jews, don't need recognition from anybody," Lau said. "But we have to be realistic. One billion Catholics respect the pope. His words, his visit, his gestures, mean for a very many people, a lot."

Two days later, on March 18, I was in the house of Jerusalem's grand mufti in a rundown, dusty section of East Jerusalem, the overwhelmingly Palestinian section of the city which its residents want for their own, badly. In the mufti's living room hung no fewer than six pictures of The Dome of the Rock, the sacred shrine atop Jerusalem's temple mount that Muslims revere as the location from which the prophet Mohammed ascended on his night journey to visit Allah.

The scene in his living room was radically different from the sterile office space where the rabbi spoke, but the words were almost identical. He wanted to use the pope's visit to legitimize his claims. When he spoke of his planned meeting with the pope in the Al Aqsa Mosque, another holy site atop the temple mount, the mufti said, "the Al Aqsa Mosque is the home of Muslims, and the visit of the pope proves that this is a holy place for Muslims."

The politicians were more direct and more dogmatic. The mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Nassar, a Roman Catholic Palestinian, said that the pope's visit to Bethlehem meant that he felt solidarity with the Palestinian cause, and Nassar hoped that the visit would accelerate the drive for peace. But more realistically, he said there would be no peace without a Palestinian state that included a piece of Jerusalem.

"I don't see any compromise," Nassar said, "except the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and East Jerusalem.

Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem's mayor, in an address to journalists that night, unequivocally put an end to any speculation along those lines. Olmert bluntly said that Jerusalem was the Israeli capital and always would be, and there would be no negotiation on this. He said that that was how it was, and the Palestinians would just have to get used to that fact.

At the Amman airport, barely two hours' drive away from the contentious capital and its winding streets constantly patrolled by well-armed Israeli soldiers, it was easy to forget the bitter conflict over Jerusalem. The red carpet across the tarmac was brushed spotless, and along it representatives of all religions stood side by side. It was a glorious day, sunny and clear, and as the pope stepped down from the plane, all appeared calm. But the Holy Land is a hornet's nest. And even Pope John Paul II may find understanding a hard sell. The doves knew.

Mark Stroh is a former Style Weekly reporter who currently is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His visit to the Holy Land was part of a course on Covering the Religions of Israel.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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